Trucker Movies: The Great Smokey Roadblock
I've done arts criticism for going on a quarter century, and I learned pretty early on that a bad review won't kill anything. In fact, if the review is entertainingly bad enough, it will ignite interest in that subject, and risks giving it some real street credibility; there is nothing more punk rock than being condemned by a critic.
No, if you're going to kill something, the best way to do it is to starve it of attention. I think this is what happened to the 1977 film "The Great Smokey Roadblock," which featured enough of an accumulation of talent that it should have attracted a little attention. It stars Henry Fonda, after all, and not only features but was coproduced by Susan Sarandon.
Yet, going back through newspapers at the time of its release, I find scant coverage. It ran in theaters alongside "The Billion Dollar Hobo" and "Whiskey Mountain," and who remembers those films? It probably didn't help that "The Great Smokey Roadblock" arrived with the stink of failure already on it.
The film was produced by Dimension Pictures, notorious for exploitation quickies like "The Devil's Wedding Night"and "Gator Bait." It's production was reportedly plagued with health problems from Fonda. It was shelved for three years, and its title was changed at the last minute to capitalize on "Smokey and the Bandit," which had just become a runaway hit.
And so the film starved, and has received scant attention since then, but for occasional recuts and releases, often under new names like "The Last of the Cowboys." And it's too bad, because while "The Great Smokey Roadblock" is not a great film, it's an awful lot of fun.
Admittedly, the film starts slowly and is a bit of a bummer, beginning with Fonda as "Elegant John," a lifetime long-haul trucker hospitalized with a terminal illness who has just had his truck repossessed. He steals it back and spends a good chunk of the early part of the movie with a hitchhiker, played by a young Robert Englund, later better known as Freddie Kruger. Fonda is morose and Englund is a bit of a stick in the mud, and that's not a great start to a film.
But there is wildness lurking at the edges of the film, first revealed by Gary Sandy, best know for his lead role in the sitcome "WKRP in Cincinnati," but here dressed in tight jeans, a cowboy shirt, and slicked black hair. He menaces Fonda with creepy, swaggering, weirdly sexualized bravado — it is possible to imagine that Matthew McConaughey based his entire career off Sandy's 10 or so minutes in this film.
Soon Fonda picks up an entire brothel who have been given 24-hours to get out of town, and they essentially set up a portable brothel in the trailer of his rig — this being a PG movie, this is more hinted at than shown. The prostitutes are played by a collection of quirky character actresses, including Sarandon and Eileen Brennan as the madame, and the moment they join the story, it starts sliding into delightful weirdness.
As the film progresses, and Fonda's run from the law becomes even more desperate, he picks up a growing collection of oddballs trailing him and hailing him as a folk hero. These are mostly represented by Austin Pendleton as a stoned paranoiac, convinced he has been repeatedly kidnapped by aliens, and John Byner as an out-of-work shock deejay who takes it upon himself to become Fonda's hype man.
The film has enough sense to occasionally leave these two alone together and peek in on their conversations, and it's marvelously spacey. This communicates itself to the rest of the movie: The film's initial moroseness and sitck-in-the-mudness is replaced with a sort of anarchic, dingbatish vibe, like everyone has gotten goofy from the adventure and gone a bit road mad.
This is all genuinely entertaining, but I can't blame people for not discovering it. After all, it's mostly nestled in the last third of an obscure film that nobody even thought enough about to mention when it first premiered, and so it starved for lack of an audience, and is still starving.